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Who Knows?

Only one in five knowledge workers consistently finds the information needed to do their jobs. This happens to “knowledge customers,” too, half of whom bail before completing online orders. Other studies have found that knowledge workers spend more time r

May 17, 2004
Related Topics: Mentoring, Leadership Development
KEYWORDS mentoring

What would you think of an assembly line where workers didn’t know where to find the parts they were supposed to attach? “Hey! Anybody see any fenders?”

Absurd, you say. Heads would roll. Yet for knowledge workers, this is routine. Consider a knowledge worker stymied by a lack of information—hardly an uncommon situation. In fact, in many professions, knowledge workers spend a third of their time looking for answers and helping their colleagues do the same.

How does our knowledge worker respond? She’s five times more likely to turn to another person than to an impersonal source, such as a database or a file cabinet. Often she asks whoever happens to be close by, the denizen of the next cube or someone getting a cup of coffee. Half the time, this person doesn’t have a clue. This is like the guy searching for his keys under the streetlight because the light is better there than in the place he thinks he lost them.

Only one in five knowledge workers consistently finds the information needed to do their jobs. This happens to “knowledge customers,” too, half of whom bail before completing online orders. Other studies have found that knowledge workers spend more time re-creating existing information they were unaware of than creating original material.

All this slows the pace of the enterprise, burns out the workforce with scut work, reduces responsiveness to customers and increases job dissatisfaction. Reinventing the wheel, looking for information in the wrong places and answering questions of their peers consumes two-thirds of the average knowledge worker’s time. Slashing this waste time provides a lot more time to devote to improving the business, a massive reduction in payroll or, more likely, a bit of both.

This knowledge productivity problem is destined to get worse before it gets better. The haystack is getting bigger exponentially. Corporate information doubles in volume every 18 months. Half of the recorded information in the entire world has been created in the past five years!

Specialists used to keep their heads above the floodtide of incoming knowledge by knowing “more and more about less and less.” In today’s interconnected world, boundaries between disciplines are becoming porous. To understand organization development, you need to know biology. Everything’s multidisciplinary; we have to know more and more about more and more.

Time management schemes and multitasking aren’t going to halt the tsunami, so what are we going to do?

Successful organizations will connect people. Learning is social. We learn from, by and with other people. Conversation, storytelling and observation are great ways to learn, but they aren’t things you do by yourself.

Job one is to help knowledge workers find the answers they need. Rob Cross and others describe many ways to go about this in a marvelous new book, “Creating Value With Knowledge,” edited by IBM’s Eric Lesser and Laurence Prusak (Oxford University Press, 2004).

If people are going to go to other people for answers, make it easy for them to get to people in the know. (Get them to look for their keys where they’re likely to find them, not where the light’s better.) Set up help desks to support new product rollouts and organizational initiatives. Have the help desk apply the 80/20 rule and document the common queries in a mercifully short FAQ. Then, tier responses by triage. First query the FAQ, then ask the help desk, and if those don’t work, contact the prime subject matter expert.

Learning a new software release is a special case. Since a release generally builds on an existing foundation, workers more often need answers to specific questions than the sort of overview workshops and courses provide. Trial-and-error is a great way to learn—as long as there’s a way to deal with roadblocks. Since the release is new, learners won’t find answers in-house. In this case, outsource mentoring to a firm that does have the answers.

Web standards and smart software can monitor workflow to provide lessons or contacts precisely when they are needed.

Now that business organizations have been de-layered, downsized and re-engineered to the bone, how will they transfer their special ways of doing things to new employees?

The answer lies in exploiting the savvy of seniors, the wise elders who have “been there, done that” and can offer counsel and know-how to the newcomers. Old hands often make outstanding sales and service coaches, too.

Jay Cross is CEO of eLearningForum, founder of Internet Time Group and a fellow of For more information, e-mail Jay at

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